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The top 4 mistakes of brand voice guidelines

By Lily Hudson

If you’ve ever been in charge of ensuring consistent tone of voice for a brand, you’ve experienced the quiet despair of seeing copy go live and knowing in your heart that it just feels … off. (It’s even worse when it keeps happening over and over.)

Despite your best intentions, this is The Age of Content Marketing, and the firehose of words required — for social media, emails, evergreen content, product copy and more — can feel impossible to monitor, let alone finesse. And as bad as that off-ness leaves you feeling, the more important question is: What effect does it have on your reader, a.k.a. the consumer?

For me, it’s the same effect I get from podcast ads. I do love a podcast, and I listen for hours every week. It feels strangely old-timey to be so immersed in an audio program; I may as well be nestled up to the family radio while Orson Welles narrates “The War of the Worlds.” The most time-collapsing aspect of this audio renaissance is that podcast hosts now read on-air ads, just like the radio DJs of yesteryear. And you can always tell when the host switches into “ad mode.”

It’s a real “body snatchers” moment. Suddenly, a trapdoor opens and your podcast friend is nowhere to be found. Technically, their voice is still in your ears, telling you all about beautiful salon-quality hair color by Madison Reed, but their voice — it’s unrecognizable.

By their voice, I mean their personality. My sense of who they are as a person. Hearing it overpowered by some awkward ad copy is always an uneasy experience. When someone you know and love abruptly becomes a QVC host shilling Supima bedsheets, it’s not just disorienting, it’s off-putting. I can’t tap the “30 seconds forward” button fast enough.

Consistency = trust

We like to think we know people (and brands); we observe what they do and say, and then we let their personalities become fixed in our minds. When they don’t live up to our mental picture of them, it makes us feel weird. And we don’t trust stuff that makes us feel weird.

That’s why a brand’s voice is so crucial. It helps people learn who your brand is, so they can begin to remember and like you. And if it’s consistent, they’ll learn to trust you.

And consistency? Way harder than it seems.

Completing the work of defining your brand voice may feel like the finish line, but it’s actually just the starting point. The real challenge lies in getting everyone who writes on behalf of your brand to reliably re-create that voice. We’re talking in-house folks, freelancers, agencies and product people, each with a different writing style and skill set, not to mention different agendas and platforms.

It’s not easy. And it’s near impossible without good, actionable voice guidelines. Here at Thread, we produce a whole lot of them.

The good news is that most brands recognize that voice guidelines are a staple for building and executing a successful brand. But the quality and actual boots-on-the-ground helpfulness of that direction? That’s another story.

The Top 4 Mistakes of Brand Voice Guidelines

What’s wrong with most voice guidelines? Simply put, they aren’t written by writers.

If you’ve ever pulled your hair out over copywriting that was disappointingly off the mark, you’ve experienced the unfortunate results of ineffective voice guidelines.

Copywriters: we are mostly all this grumpy.

We all have different skills. Some people can design and engineer the world’s tallest wooden roller coaster. Some can sell the most haunted of houses. And some of us can turn thoughts into cogent writing. There’s just no substitute for a great copywriter. Some people have that gift, and they’re the people who should be parked in front of a Google doc, Hootsuite workspace or other content creation tool to bang out your copy.

But even the best writer will be able to read your mind only occasionally. So you don’t want the kind of guidelines that are open to interpretation. You want guidelines that are so clear and specific, your writer has no choice but to nail your voice. And there’s nobody better than a writer to write those guidelines for your writer.

When guidelines aren’t helpful to writers, it’s usually because one (or more) of these problems are in play:

1. No objective rules, just subjective words: Instead of actual writing direction, you get a stack of adjectives. It usually goes something like: “We are upbeat, simple, authentic and funny.

This usually happens when a brand designer is trying to create a succinct, elegant deck, and feels that a collection of single words grouped on a single slide looks streamlined and lovely. (I’m not trying to be mean to designers, I promise.)

Look, we’re all for brevity, but when you drop adjectives without explaining what you mean by them, you leave it up to the writer to decide if being “upbeat” means ending every sentence with an exclamation point (... it doesn’t).

You know this is bad direction, right?

Writing is an art, not a science, so there’s always going to be an element of the subjective. But so much voice direction is just not actionable because it relies too heavily on descriptor words with no fixed meaning.

Let’s take an adjective like: “funny.” Your idea of copy that’s “funny” is going to be really different from that of your co-worker, your boss, your mom or your periodontist. Remember, writers thrive on specificity. So if you tell a writer, “We’d like the copy to be funny,” they immediately want to know, “Funny how?” Funny like The Onion? Funny like “Tuca and Bertie”? Funny like your 65-year-old dad who can’t pass up a pun? The finer a point you can put on it, the more likely you are to get results you like.

2. No explanations of why voice rules are in place: Fill your writer in on the meaning behind the rule. When writers know why they're being asked to do something, they’re more likely to remember to do it, time and time again. (This is true of everyone, not just writers. Try it with your children.)

For example: Instead of telling a writer to be concise, tell them to be concise because your brand’s voice is inspired by a minimalist approach, and you’re going for a prose style that reflects simplicity, clarity and brevity.

3. No examples to help the writer “get it”: Many writers learn best through imitation — so give them something to imitate. You can tell a copywriter to sound confident but not cocky, or sexy but not sleazy, but what will really help them understand the parameters is a real-life example of what is and is not appropriate for your brand.

You should also include examples that are off the mark, because those can actually be the most helpful for a writer. Even a well-written line is a miss if it doesn’t match up with your overall brand voice.

Here’s an example: Thread has a winery client who’s aiming to de-snootify the wine industry. Their voice guidelines include a “don’t” example that would be a perfectly acceptable “do” for one of their competitors:

DON’T: Our volcanic sandy loam is filled with trace minerals that we’ve found to be delightfully perceptible in our premium wines.

Our rewrite, using their brand voice, reads like this:

DO: Growing our grapes in sandy soil gives the wine a “mineral” flavor. Q: So it takes like rocks? A: Yes, but in a really nice way.

4. Overlooking the little details: Beyond overarching voice rules, your brand has a million little pieces to keep track of: When do you capitalize this? How do you punctuate that? What are those things called again? These minor inconsistencies may seem like no big deal (and, we get it, they’re usually the least of your concerns). But over time, these inconsistencies can start to erode consumer trust.

When a shopper sees the same term spelled a few different ways, or a collab described inaccurately, a little subconscious question mark edges into their mind: If they got that wrong, what else are they going to eff up?

That’s where a style guide comes in. It’s a place for all that extra stuff to live (conventions and phrasing for names and technologies, preferences for grammar and punctuation, character count limits, etc.). That way, it’s within easy reach of the writer, editor and everyone else with a hand in copy production. You may hear people talk about voice guidelines and style guides as being two separate things, but in truth, they work best together.

We’re brand voice people

At Thread, we work with 30+ writers, researchers, editors and proofreaders, all tasked with bringing brand voice to life for a wide variety of brands. We’re intimately aware of the specific and thorough guidance we need to make that happen. And that’s the kind of direction we provide through voice guidelines for our clients.

If you’d like to read more about Thread’s approach to brand voice strategy and execution, read about our brand strategy work for Tofurky (a.k.a. the OGs of plant-based meat). Then check out our Brand Voice Strategy page for the nuts and bolts of how we do it (and how much it costs, because I know you wanna know).

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By Lily Hudson
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